Iraqi army stages show of force in Basra

Soldiers draw scattered bombs and bullets that wound camera operator and narrowly miss commander of gov't troops in city.

Iraq army 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Iraq army 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Iraqi soldiers rolled through a Shi'ite militia stronghold in Basra drawing scattered bombs and bullets that wounded a camera operator for a US-funded TV station and narrowly missed the commander of government troops in the city. Followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr accused the army Wednesday of violating an Iranian-brokered agreement that ended last week's fighting, which erupted in Basra and quickly engulfed Baghdad and major cities of the Shi'ite south. Iraqi troops met no significant resistance as a dozen vehicle convoy drove into the Hayaniyah district of central Basra, scene of fierce clashes last week with al-Sadr's Mahdi Army fighters. Troops set up checkpoints and searched a few houses before leaving the neighborhood after a couple of hours, witnesses said. An Iraqi cameraman working for the US-funded Alhurra satellite television station was shot in the leg as he filmed the operation in Hayaniyah. Later, the camera operator, Mazin al-Tayar, told Alhurra by telephone that the soldiers faced "many roadside bombs and mortar rounds" during the operation, although no military casualties were reported. One of the bombs exploded near a vehicle carrying the local Iraqi army commander, Lt. Gen. Mohan al-Fireji, but caused no injuries, according to Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari who was traveling with the general. The Basra joint operations center announced that Iraqi soldiers had detained two suspected militia figures in the Qibla area. A gunbattle erupted during the raid and an Iraqi army vehicle was set on fire. Nevertheless, Basra's provincial governor, Mohammed al-Waili, said the overall situation in the oil-rich city was "very calm and stable" and that normalcy was returning. "We issued orders to all government employees to go to their offices starting from today and they will be obliged to work their full schedule," he said. But the situation remained tense, and Basra residents contacted by telephone said many people were fearful that the truce might not last. Underscoring those fears, clashes broke out hours later after Iraqi troops raided the Maakal area in Basra, another Mahdi Army stronghold, according to local police who could not immediately provide further details. A Mahdi Army spokesman in Basra, known as Abu Liqa al-Basri, said Wednesday that the militiamen were keeping a low profile but accused Iraqi security forces of creating a "crisis of trust" by mounting "provocative raids" and arresting al-Sadr supporters. "If the Iraqi army continues in its provocative raids, the consequences will be bad," he said. Despite an end to heavy fighting, the Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, said security operations were continuing and that an April 8 deadline for gunmen to surrender their weapons remains in effect. Violence exploded March 25 when Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki launched a major operation to wrest control of Basra from the militias, which had effectively ruled the city since 2005. US and Iraqi officials have maintained that the crackdown was directed at criminals and renegade militiamen but not the Sadrist political movement, which holds 30 of the 275 seats in the national parliament and is a major political force. But the Sadrists believed the operation was aimed at weakening their movement before provincial elections this fall. Their armed wing, the Mahdi Army, mounted a fierce resistance, prompting the Iraqis to call in US jets and British tanks and artillery to help in the battle. The failure to gain a quick and decisive victory over the militias left al-Maliki politically battered, raising doubts about Iraqi military capability just a week before top US commander Gen. David Petraeus briefs Congress about prospects for further American troop cuts. In the wake of the fighting, Britain suspended plans to withdraw 1,500 soldiers from southern Iraq. US military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said many Iraqi police and soldiers performed well during last week's fighting but conceded there were problems in Basra. "Overall the majority of the Iraqi security forces performed their mission though some were not up to the task," he said at a news conference in Baghdad. Also Wednesday, a roadside bomb targeting a US convoy exploded near a restaurant in Baghdad's main Shi'ite district of Sadr City, killing at least three Iraqi civilians and wounding 13, police said. A mortar shell slammed into a house in Sadr City late Wednesday, killing three members of one family, including two children and their grandmother, police said. Five people were injured. Suspected al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents, meanwhile, continued their campaign against fellow Sunnis who have joined forces with the Americans against the terror network. Four of the US-allied fighters were killed Wednesday and four others abducted at a fake checkpoint near Duluiyah, 70 kilometers north of Baghdad, police said.